Chapter Eleven

Mastering the Art of Forgiveness

REPAIRING THE WOUNDS TO OUR SELF-CONCEPT
PART II

By Dr. Robert Leichtman

Preventing illnesses is always easier to achieve than trying to manage them once they have begun. Fortunately, we can learn to cultivate certain  strengths and techniques that help preserve our health and promote healing of our body and personality.

An example of this type of thinking is demonstrated by a remarkably successful and active ninety-year-old man. He was asked the secret of his unusual vitality and productivity at his age. Most people in the nineties are not even above ground, let alone so active. He responded, “I don’t let the old man in.”

This statement means he recognized that a part of him was ready to think and feel like a tired and frail old man, but he would not allow that type of attitude or expectation to take control of him. Instead, he was determined to focus on his positive intentions and expectations and what he had to do to achieve them. This approach was a more rewarding and enjoyable path, but it required personal discipline and robust rejection of the tendency to do what is easy and comfortable. 

We must cope with the resistance to taking charge of our life   

It is unconscionably easy to indulge our hurt feelings and surrender to our disappointments. If we do not get control of these enticements, we can figuratively drown in our pain, anger, and despair. The exhaustion, discouragement, and helplessness will become the life-killing temptations that can destroy us.   

Resisting the urge to take it easy, do less, and indulge ourselves can be difficult, especially when our friends and counselors tell us to take this path. Yes, some rest is needed to restore us, but this is not a route to achievement. We need hope, determination, and a solid commitment to our capacity to thrive. These virtues affirm and invoke the best of our emotions, thoughts, and intentions to support healthy change and activity. And yes, we can learn to pace ourselves, so we do not increase our fatigue and distress.

This protocol is not merely a change of attitudes where we desire to be successful. This process begins with solid intentions, is anticipated with confidence, and continues with the full conviction that our efforts will be worthwhile. 

This mindset is the engine we need to develop the solid and positive commitments that empower us. Without the power of these spiritual and psychological forces, our possibilities for success are poor. With them, however, we are good to go.

Being a prisoner or our helplessness   

No one should ever volunteer to be a victim, yet this occurs frequently in those who come to believe they are victims and their situation is hopeless. These conclusions are rarely valid. We become hopeless only after our creative imagination sees no viable possibilities, and then we give up. The actual problem behind this problem is not the lack of choices but our blindness to the alternatives that are possible but not recognized.

We may face profound challenges and situations that cannot be reversed, but our strength to manage them comes from our higher human and spiritual resources. They are always available for us, but we must reach out to them, not wait for them to come to us. 

Our real nemesis is not always the bad things that happen to us. It is more likely to be the apathy that destroys our hope or the helplessness that turns off our creative imagination. For others, it is the resentments and fears that drain our ambition and the constructive thinking to engage it. 

Healthy changes in attitude can be costly   

The path to our recovery sometimes parallels the road to redemption. This factor can complicate our recovery from old traumas. For example, sometimes, the price of healing change may require us to admit that we misjudged those we accuse of ruining our life. Yes, bad relationships with people or situations often precedes our collapse into disaster, but we were the one who added the long period of complaining, blaming, disgust, and sulking. Our anger and despair, however well-justified they might have been, have been a poor choice because they have generated an anxious and joyless life for us. Our intense and prolonged reaction was our choice and it contributed to our sufferingConfessing that we were wrong about some of these judgments and behaviors may trigger considerable guilt or anxiety.  

Returning to a healthy mind and body can also be difficult for other reasons. Giving up our partial helplessness could require that we abandon our bulletproof excuses for being and doing less than we could. It would mean we would have to take on adult responsibilities and duties we have avoided. The cost of this conversion might be too much to pay for authentic recovery from our grievances.

We can find the power to sustain the work of this recovery in the commitment to following our conscience instead of focusing on our immediate comfort. Our dedication to these long-term goals will summon the forces to overcome our obstacles. 

The temptation to accept the finality of outer events 

Perhaps this story will reveal the framework of how we can resist the tendency to give in to chaos and discomfort currently about us. During World War II, a small group of English soldiers were together for the time they spent in Europe between the D-Day invasion in June 1944 and the surrender of Germany in May 1945. Their exhausting duties, monotony, and frequent danger consumed their days and nights. The intensity of their primary responsibilities and other experiences almost consumed them.

Yet, instead of being buried in the identity of tired-to-the-bones foot soldiers, they managed to hold on to their true selves and humanity. One member of this group had been an auto mechanic before the war. He had a small home where he lived with his wife and child. In his free moments, he filled himself with memories of being with his family, repairing cars, and his expectation of returning to this domestic comfort once the war was over. 

Another soldier was a pharmacist before the war. He frequently thought of returning to his job and family and enjoying the quiet comfort of his professional work in the orderly routines of peacetime. He kept pictures of his wife in his pocket to remind him of the life he expected to re-engage. 

Another soldier worked as a partner in a small business. To remind him that he was a perfectly respectable person, he kept one of his wife’s silk stockings wrapped around his neck to prompt him to recall the domestic identity and status to which he would return.

The idea behind these stories is the inventiveness and power of these simple gestures. They all lived in a chaotic and dangerous place and time that reduced their identity to faceless members of a vast army. Yet, each managed to anchor their identity in a peaceful and stable situation. While they were tramping about on the battlefields of France and Germany, a large part of their minds and hearts were always back home in England. 

The simple act of their faith and imagination worked a minor miracle for each of them. This soothed some of their fears and discomfort at the time, but more importantly, it sustained a robust self-image while building up a strong expectation for their return to a normal lifestyle—all intact and healthy.

More than this expectation, it provided a deep conviction that they deserved to survive the war and return to their peacetime domesticity and endeavors. The wartime activities were real but entirely unnatural. Their regular and healthy world still existed, and they were determined to keep a significant part of themselves immersed in it even as they walked about Europe.

How does this apply to the rest of us?  

Most people are not involved in active wartime situations, but perhaps they struggle with more personal battles against illness, depression, or other types of stress. They, too, can have difficulty maintaining a stable and robust self-concept for themselves. However, like these soldiers, those who are struggling with illness or other problems can also identify with the core strengths and design for health instead of the current stressful situation. 

This shift of our attention depends on our ability to decide what is most important for us. Is it our illnesses and problems, or is it the solution to those problems? We must ask ourselves if we are a healthy person who just happens to have an illness, or are we only a sick person? If we have been someone who has been healthy in body and mind for most of our life, can we conceive of returning to this state of health? Have we been hypnotized to eliminate all hope, or are strong parts of us alive and well underneath our fatigue and discouragement?

Those who are involved in a figurative war against significant illness, failing relationships, or other stress need to define what we consider the core of our identity. It can be our physical health, career, association with a significant person or group, or other productive and nourishing connection. It may be a set of experiences we once thoroughly enjoyed or an aspiration yet to be accomplished. For many, it can be our association with higher intelligence and power. Whatever it is, we need an alliance with a stable core and force that we seek to honor in who we are and will become. 

The crises, traumas, or other problems we are experiencing must be carefully relegated to secondary significance. These are not to be ignored or denied, but they should not control everything about who we are. Our inner convictions and expectations must be more robust than any outer distress we have. Who we have been and what we are to become again must have as much or more reality as any misery we have to endure now.

Exercising our constructive possibilities 

The “What If” technique  

The frustrated part of us will often try to stop or sabotage our recovery efforts. We need to deflect this part so we can free space to work on developing constructive thoughts and possibilities. This technique enables us to apply our creative imagination to find the resources for establishing healthy changes.  

For example, we might wonder: 

  • What would change if I could feel fully confident and optimistic? What would happen if I thought I was destined to be cheerful and could stop assuming I would never be happy again? 
  • How would I feel if I knew I would eventually be successful in my important aspirations? 

While the prospect of invoking this support may seem nebulous to many, we must appreciate that there are resources we have not yet activated and potentials we have not yet developed. In addition, there are entities around us that have more faith in us than we have in ourselves. We need to reach out to these supporting forces and accept them. We can lift ourselves out of the bottomless hole of apathy and despair by adjusting how we think about our problems and limitations.  

Mindfulness exercises

We must be aware that we are continually recycling our usual explanations for our distress and suffering. We can, however, explore alternative narratives about what is happening and what we could think and do instead of our habitual gloom and frustration. 

By becoming more aligned with our common sense and aspirations instead of our old beliefs, we can explore alternatives about better points of view and reflect on the strengths and opportunities we can bring to these challenges. 

Other applications of mindfulness can be observing how we persistently call on old excuses and explanations that leave us helpless and unchanged. We must watch ourselves begin to repeat this old sequence of beliefs that sabotage our efforts to help ourselves. Having exposed this mistake, we can then substitute something more constructive. 

Focus on healthy subpersonalities 

The concept of subpersonalities helps manage our negative impulses and habits. The protocol involves the concept that our personality can be defined as a collection of valuable subpersonalities or departments devoted to our basic duties and roles. There are departments of ambition and drive, fears, resentments, fun and enjoyment, sexuality, grievances, an inner critic, departments of helplessness and frustrations, and so forth. The school of psychology that applies this approach is known as Psychosynthesis. 

It is possible to focus on our department of despair and helplessness as a separate subpersonality. Like any collection of habits (e.g., our department of pessimism and low expectations), we can work to isolate it and restrain its influence in favor of our healthy strengths and talents. Constructive departments of optimism and confidence still exist even in depressed individuals. We only need to summon them to surface and operate.

Recall the example of the active ninety-year-old who stayed busy and productive because he refused to allow the “old man” to enter his thinking and attitudes. He restrained his departments of age, fatigue, and weakness from controlling his active thoughts and expectations.

We can do the same and decide to refuse the entrance of our depressed and overwhelmed part to control our body or mind. Instead, we can choose to insert our pre-existing departments of cheerfulness, confidence, and positive expectations. 

Commentary 

It is easy to give in to feelings of fear, discouragement, and resentment after experiencing setbacks and rejection. Unfortunately, these reactions can damage how we regard all our abilities and competence. Unless we monitor and restrain these doubts and fears, we risk retreating into common weakness and helplessness. This shift will damage our ability to provide a full expression of our strengths.

There are continual assaults on our self-esteem and confidence in life. Some of these will be genuine threats to our well-being, while others will be false because they originate in our insecurities. We need to be able to confront authentic challenges as well as manage intimidation. This effort must apply to disappointing events as well as unfair criticism and rejection. 

Thinking for ourselves and creating a fair assessment of our life requires us to be mindful of the larger context of our fundamental knowledge, skills, and strengths. This is the mindset we must use to properly evaluate our negative experiences and prevent an unnecessary loss of confidence and assertiveness.

We must make use of our healthy imagination and aspirations to help us stay connected with our strengths and positive destiny. This ability will prevents us from succumbing to the immediate disappointment or anxiety that follows many negative experiences. 

Summary

  • The immediate evaluation of negative experiences can powerfully impact our self-image and well-being. To counteract this damage, we must view all events, good and bad, in the full context of all our knowledge and skills. This effort helps to moderate the anxiety, sadness, and resentment that can sometimes occur.
  • Maintaining our confidence and optimism will require firm control over our imagination, which can often magnify and exaggerate our fears and despair. We must learn to be creative in how we use our confidence and courage to sustain our core strengths and abilities in troubled times. We can accomplish this by using techniques such as the “as if” method or our self-discipline to restrict our subconscious departments of gloom and doom.
  • Beware of group minds and organizations that try to convince us that we can never control or boost the quality of our life through our efforts. These groups seek to persuade us that society is to blame for all our problems, and we are helpless to change this. Yet, there is consistent evidence that our honest efforts, skill, persistence, conscientious work, tolerance, and hope are essential for our success and well-being. Blaming society is an easy way to avoid the truth about our failures. 

EXERCISES 

  1. Consider how we have allowed discouragement, fear, or self-criticism to limit our view of what we can do and become. Do we have some secret fear that we will never be successful, loved, or fulfilled?
  2. Are we sometimes reluctant to give up some old judgment where we blame people or situations for almost ruining our life? Do we find it unbearable to admit we might be wrong?
  3. Do we accept the common belief that we are permanently limited and identified by our class, gender, race, or reputation in mass consciousness? Do these factors eclipse our strengths, ambition, and zest for life?

Think on these things

Written by Dr. Robert Leichtman